Seminoles Sue Despite ‘Significant Progress’ in Compact Talks

The Seminole compact provision allowing exclusive rights to blackjack in exchange for $1 billion over five years has expired. Although the tribe and Governor Rick Scott's administration have made "significant progress" toward a new deal, the tribe sued the state, and said it would continue to offer the games since the state breached the agreement.

While stating “significant progress” has been made regarding gaming compact negotiations with state of Florida, the Seminole Tribe announced it filed a lawsuit in federal court to be allowed to continue to offer blackjack at seven of its casinos. The provision of the 2010 gaming compact allowing the tribe to offer banked card games, including blackjack, chemin de fer and baccarat, expired in July but with a 90-day extension it officially ended Thursday, October 29. In return for exclusive rights to offer the card games, the tribe paid the state billion over five years.

In a statement, the Seminoles said, “The tribe believes that a legislative solution would be in the best interest of the state and the tribe. The tribe has no option but to file in order to protect its interests and those of the 3,100 employees and their families whose jobs are in jeopardy.” The tribe stated in addition to continuing to operate the games, it also will keep sending revenue-sharing payments to the state.

The Seminole’s lawsuit asserts the state has not negotiated in good faith and has demanded modifications to the remaining provisions of the compact “to substantially increase the tribe’s payments to the State without a proportionate increase in economic benefit to the tribe.” The tribe alleges it is entitled to continue operating the banked games under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act because the state allows electronic versions of blackjack at racinos in South Florida, in violation of the compact’s exclusivity provisions.

The Scott administration would not comment on the lawsuit and also would not say whether or not it will ask have U.S. marshals to seize tables, cards and other gaming equipment at Seminole casinos. “My legal team is reviewing it. I’m going to take the right amount of time to make sure I take care of all the taxpayers. I want to take care of our state. I want to make the best deal I can,” Scott said.

Tribal officials met with Scott and representatives from his administration met two weeks ago for compact talks. Afterward the tribe issued a statement noting, “Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman James E. Billie is pleased to report significant progress in the tribe’s negotiations with the governor and leaders of the Florida legislature relative to finalizing a new compact agreement, and the tribe remains hopeful that a positive outcome will result.” Both sides also are in mediation concerning the compact provision.

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation in June asked the tribe to present a “timeline for the closure of banked card games at your tribal facilities.” But the tribe has not done that since it believes regulators have breached the compact by allowing the competing games.

State Senator Rob Bradley, who is participating in the ongoing talks, took issue with the tribe’s claim that the state has not negotiated in good faith. He said the current compact makes it clear that the tribe must remove the blackjack tables without a new agreement. “The state’s expectations are that the tribe will live up to its obligations,” Bradley said.

For the past few months, legislators have discussed renewing, amending or expanding the compact, which must be approved by the legislature and signed by the governor. State Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, chair of the House Regulated Affairs Committee and the lead negotiator for the House, said lawmakers are considering raising the Seminoles’ revenue requirement to the state to an annual payment of $200 million to $400 million over seven to 20 years, among other options, including allowing the Palm Beach County dog track to add slot machines and licensing a slots-only casino in Miami.

Last year, Scott negotiated a compact renewal that would have let the Seminoles add roulette and craps at its South Florida casinos and build a new casino on its Fort Pierce reservation, in exchange for $2 billion over seven years. That deal was opposed by influential legislators.

Also under consideration is a measure that would allow horse and dog tracks to operate card rooms without offering live races, or “decoupling,” which concerns the state’s horseracing industry. Under the current Florida law, poker rooms are linked to horse and dog racetracks or jai alai. If these facilities can offer live poker without racing or jai alai, the racing industry fears most will not run a full racing schedule or will discontinue racing completely, while keeping the lucrative card rooms.

Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association Chief Executive Officer Lonny Powell said, “Decoupling is first, foremost and everything. That will be our really strong focus. We’ll be dealing with this issue, in all likelihood, the whole session.”